Firms must do more for less, but there has to be a culture where mistakes are disclosed.
This week’s tale of the solicitor desperately struggling to cover his mistakes seems to have struck a chord. I’d defy anyone not to have sympathy for Paul Smith: he was working on 170 cases, told the SDT he felt inexperienced in handling personal injury claims and said he feared for his job if he let on how he was faring.
His firm, Williamsons Solicitors, points out his caseload was standard and he had been with it for nine years, specialising in personal injuries claims for more than five years post-qualification.
Let’s be clear about this: you cannot blame the firm for what happened. It had daily supervision in place and would no doubt have shown understanding and support for Smith if he had sought it. In fact, the fact that the firm reported its concerns early and was transparent about what had happened is to its credit: I do wonder how many other firms out there would not be so willing to involve the SRA and address the issue head-on?
Smith was a symptom of something much wider going on in the legal sector: the constant and dangerous pressure to do more for less.
When the government reduced personal injury fees from £1,200 to £500 per claim it put firms under enormous strain. Experience was sacrificed and practices were forced into creating more of a factory-style system with one senior solicitor overseeing the work of many junior team members.
Later this year the chances are Lord Justice Jackson will extend the fixed fees regime and this pressure will only increase. Mistakes are inevitable, but firms simply won’t be able to afford the time and resources to spot them.
Ironically, Jackson’s own reforms of case management have contributed to the climate of solicitors feeling they could not come clean: Smith’s own case refers to him feeling ‘huge pressure’ to ensure he did not miss deadlines and so leave his firm open to costs penalties.
There are no easy answers: if fees must come down then caseloads for each fee-earner will have to rise and the supervision over their progress may suffer.
It may be that lawyers have to help themselves, offering a second pair of eyes over a case. Firms must encourage a culture of openness and make clear that admitting to a mistake will not cost staff their career.
I would like to see the SRA being more proactive too: clearly Smith had to face punishment but the message should be that simply making a mistake is ok – so long as you come clean right away.
When a solicitor is so fearful to admit his own mistakes he will cough up £5,000 to hide them, something is seriously wrong. Young solicitors should not be working in fear.
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor